‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

My rating: 4 stars

Slavery, racism and the allure of scientific discoveries permeate the entirety of Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Although it comprises an adventure, this novel reads more like a fictional memoir focusing on specific periods from the life of George Washington Black, who was born a slave in Barbados. Set in the 19th century, it also touches on the complexity of human behaviour, while raising questions on people who, despite being against slavery, ended up using slaves for their own purposes anyway.

Washington Black, also known as Wash, was named by his first master at Faith Plantation. He had no one to take care of him during his childhood except for Big Kit, whom had been a witch before being taken as a slave. When Wash was around 11 years old, his first master died. The plantation’s next owner, Erasmus Wilde, soon proved himself to be capable of great brutality.

Big Kit and various other slaves at the plantation believed that they would return to their homelands after they died. So, some started committing suicide. To put an end to it, Erasmus Wilde ordered the head of one of the slaves that had killed himself to be cut from his body and warned the other ones that he would do the same to all the new suicides. Without a head, a person couldn’t be reborn.

Once, Wash and Kit were called to the Great House to help serve dinner, although they were field slaves. The master was dining with his younger brother, Christopher, who wanted to build an aerial machine. The two men had different opinions on slavery. Christopher showed kindness to the slaves, while Erasmus was aggressive, harsh and cruel. The same night, Wash was sent to attend on Christopher. Kit expected the worst and gave him an iron nail to defend himself. The atmosphere of tension and fear is gripping. However, Christopher just wanted Wash to be his manservant and to give assistance in his scientific endeavours.

At first, Washington was still afraid of Christopher, or Titch as he wanted to be called. He became much more at ease as time went by, though. Titch taught him to read, but his true talent was drawing. He was asked to draw everything that they observed. During the testing of Titch’s aerial machine, there was an explosion, and Wash was gravely injured. That was only the beginning of his tribulations. With his life at risk, he and Titch had to flee the plantation.

At the time of narration, Wash is 18 years old and already a free man. The writing style conveys that Wash learnt new skills during the time that passed between the various events that took place in his life and their narration. His interventions in dialogues have many grammar mistakes at first, while the rest of the text is filled with visual descriptions, tangible feelings and interesting remarks.

“We had lived in blood for years, my entire life. But something about that evening – the gleaming beauty of the master’s house, the refinements, the lazy elegance – made me feel a profound, unsettling sense of despair. It was not only William’s mutilation that day, knowing his head stared out over the fields even now, in the darkness. What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.”

Emotions and ambiances are clearly depicted. Wash questions how it was possible for slavery to exist, but he does so with sadness. Most of the times, there isn’t an angry undertone to his reminiscences. The discovery of desire is tastefully and believably portrayed. Surroundings, smells and sounds come to life, creating convincing atmospheres.

“The light was radiant, and very white, and I stood in the sudden salt air feeling a cool wind on my face, my clothes rustling around my body.”

The personalities of the majority of the characters, particularly Wash and Christopher, are conveyed through their actions and experiences. Their inner struggles are absorbing. However, the traits of some of the secondary characters are directly explained by Wash. Occasionally, it seems that Esi Edugyan was struggling to express their feelings and, thus, resorted to just having Wash telling them.

Although a couple of events feel slightly too convenient, that didn’t wane my enjoyment while reading Washing Black. Wash’s emotional and social development is enthralling, and the themes explored are stimulating.

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